What is the role of a teacher?

Great teachers are those who have an impact on each student. from www.shutterstock.com

In our series, Better Teachers, we’ll explore how to improve teacher education in Australia. We’ll look at what the evidence says on a range of themes including how to raise the status of the profession and measure and improve teacher quality.


The fundamental premise of being a teacher is to add value to the learning of each student in your care.

The act of teaching should be able to focus on enabling students to learn more than they would on their own, and to improve the possibilities that each student can realise their potential regardless of their situation in life.

These outcomes are also the foundation of Australia’s goals for education as expressed in the Melbourne Declaration of Educational Goals for Young Australians and the preamble in the Australian Education Act 2013.

The focus on what makes a better teacher then rests on the difference a teacher can make with each student.

Such a focus is often lost as current arguments around “quality teaching” focus on the education systems outputs, such as performance on tests such as NAPLAN, PISA or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

As a parent, I would want teachers accountable to my child. I want them to help me in the education of my child. Teachers also want the level of accountability to their students as evidenced by research on teachers’ motivations.

From the Australian research on future teachers, the highest motivations for teaching were perceived teaching abilities, the intrinsic value of teaching, and the desire to make a social contribution, shape the future and work with children and adolescents.

That accountability rests in educating the person. While skills in literacy and numeracy are important, so are abilities such as creative thinking, problem solving and managing risk. While these abilities are important, they are rarely given prominence in the curriculum as they are often embedded within different discipline areas, where the content of facts of each discipline gains more prominence.

Sometimes these skills are given prominence as cross-curricular priorities, but it is not always clear who takes responsibility for their learning within the different subject areas.

As an educator, I want the accountability of teachers to the system kept in balance with accountability to students, as the context of student learning is important.

This is currently not the case, with system accountability far outweighing accountability to students.

System accountability that rests on performance in tests such as NAPLAN, PISA and TIMSS does not account for the contexts in which learning occurs.

Alternatively, system accountability that embeds the importance of context – such as through a school review process – begins to provide a richer picture of what the education system is achieving.

For example, a school has performed well below expectation every year in year 5 NAPLAN tests. Some time later the school realised that the annual year 5 camp was in the week preceding the NAPLAN testing and the students were in a different frame of mind about what was important learning at this time.

While this is a simple example, there are many more examples of individual instances where indigenous groups of students, who typically focus on visual cues for their understanding, need explicit help in focusing on tasks, such as NAPLAN items, that require them to focus on text analysis.

As an ex-school teacher who now has a child who is beginning their teaching career, I do not know if I think this is a good career choice now, and not only for the accountability issues highlighted above.

For many countries including Australia, teaching is not an attractive career. It does not provide social prestige or a high salary, which are usually seen as the rewards of a good career.

This is not the case in Finland, Taiwan, Norway, Singapore, Hong Kong or Japan. These countries are often seen as high performers on international comparison tests such as PISA and TIMSS.

Contrast this with the US research sampling of 802 young college graduates (not teachers) in the US about their perceptions of teachers as underpaid, had to worry about personal safety, lacked career opportunities and were made scapegoats for many difficulties in education.

Public perception of teachers influences not only those who may be considering entering this profession, but also how those already in this profession perceive themselves.

Negative perceptions of teachers – such as it is an easy career that requires little more than a desire to work with children – that exist in countries such as Australia can only have detrimental effects on even the most motivated person who wants to be a teacher.

If we value the education of young Australians, we must value the role teachers have in this process.

In deciding what makes an effective teacher, it is not only their cognitive abilities that are important. The attitudes they have are also important, such as caring, fairness, respect for students, peers, parents and the general community, enthusiasm, motivation, dedication to teaching, morality, ethics and a sensitivity to children’s experiences.

It is to the youth of our country that we owe our accountability as they are our future. It is not just about academic performance, but also about every student having the opportunity to reach their potential regardless of their situation in life. We, as members of the general public, need to support our teachers in helping us to achieve these goals in our youth.

Read more articles in the series

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